Writer: Grieteke Meerman
When she was a baby, her father wanted to sell Sravani to human traffickers. Fortunately, her mother had the courage to step in and prevent it. While herself still in school, Sravani lobbies enthusiastically in her village to stop parents marrying off their young daughters and convincing them of the importance of education.
Like so many other Indian girls, Sravani, who is now 19, was rejected by her father when she was born, simply because he would have preferred a son. Daughters cost money because you have to provide them with a dowry when it’s time for them to marry; that’s how the thinking goes. Moreover, unlike a son, a daughter won’t be in a position to look after you when you get old. Sravani was therefore brought up by her mother and, in common with many other girls like her, she is being imbued with the feministic ambition that she must get herself a good education so she can be independent.
Getting the message across
Getting a good education and being independent is essentially the message that Sravani wants to get across to other girls. And she’s already doing it, successfully. “So far, I have prevented no less than 10 child marriages and I have made sure that at least 50 children have been able to go back to school.” If you’re wondering how a girl of 19 can manage all this, read on.
“After I was born my mother couldn’t have any more children. My father wanted to sell me, but my mother was having none of it and so she left him. She rented a piece of land to work and with the income she made from it she sent me to school. But just as I was about to start high school, she had a serious accident from which it would take her two years to recover. As a result I was the one who had to work.”
Sravani got herself a job with the local council, working on the 10-yearly census that was being carried out at the time. She also gave private lessons to other children during the evenings. After two years of this, her mother had recovered sufficiently to enable Sravani to go back to school.
Only 20 of 108 girls go to school
While she was working on the census Sravani became involved in girls’ rights. “I learned that out of the 108 girls in my village, only 20 of them went to school. The other 88 were either at home or working. It was just then that a programme implemented by a relief organisation to change this situation was being rolled out in the village. I reported to this organisation to ask if there was anything I could do. And there was.”
Sravani was approached by the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA), a collaboration between Plan International Nederland, Terres des Hommes, Defence for Children − ECPAT and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since then, as a so-called youth advocate she is part of a growing network of girls who have been trained to improve the position of women through lobbying and activism. To this end, the youth advocates go on training courses that teach them how to get the message across to other young people, their parents, religious leaders, local authorities and decision-makers. The main objectives are to reduce child marriages, child trafficking and violence against girls and young women, and the solution is seen to be the prevention of economic exclusion by improving girls’ access to education.
The drawbacks of child marriage
During the GAA training courses the girls learn how to exert influence to stop a child marriage or get a child back to school, things that Sravani now knows all about. Together with the mayor and school principal, she’ll typically visit parents who are on the verge of marrying off an underage daughter. “Many Indian girls seem to be in a hurry to get married because it means they get to wear a nice dress and be pampered. But somebody has to tell them that life after the wedding is no bed of roses. And their parents need to be informed of the negative aspects associated with a child marriage.”
To convince them, Sravani relates the story of her young cousin. “She wanted to be a professor, but her dreams were cruelly shattered when she was married off at the age of 12. She had to leave school and was forced to stay home and obey her husband and in-laws. She became pregnant three times, but each time miscarried because she was so young. Later, her husband became an alcoholic. He’s been sober for a while now, but if he hadn’t been able to shake off his addiction to alcohol she would have lost all hope of living a worthwhile life. Had she been allowed to finish school, she would have been able to earn her own living and carve out an independent life for herself.”
A generation yearning for change
Although she has already stopped many child marriages and managed to get a lot of children back into school, Sravani would love to continue with the struggle to combat child and women trafficking. Her ambition is to do this by following a career in the police. “Even girls who are married off as children are still better off than victims of trafficking. It robs you of your life and it is the worst thing that could happen to you.” Perhaps it’s not that surprising that this subject is so close to her heart; if her father had been given free rein it would have happened to her. “That’s what motivates me to do this. And I am not the only one; there is a whole generation out there yearning for change.”